I pass by the AM New York freebie paper stand today and see the screaming headline: MOVIE THEATER STUNS AUDIENCES. It doesn’t take a minute — or a genius — to see that it’s an ad for Motorola, Loews, Cingular. The ad takes over the front page. Oh, there’s still a real front page inside; this is a wrapper around the real paper. Still, this is the front page you see screaming at you from the valuable space of the newsracks; this is the image AM New York presents to its public.
Now this is hardly the first paper to put an ad on its front page; that may be holy space, but everybody has his price. Nor is this the first paper to put on a wrapper, though those are usually handed out at events and I’ve never seen one in a newsstand, because newsstands are all about selling papers — and news sells papers (doesn’t it?).
But, of course, this paper isn’t sold. It’s given away. And that changes the rules. Letting an ad take over the front page doesn’t depress newsstand sales; there are no newsstand sales.
And putting an ad with a giveaway on the cover may even help drive free papers out of the rack. All the better if they’d been giving away free sex.
Why the hell do I care? Because the free-news economy changes the rules and I am always fascinated to see how this happens.
I saw this happen at People in the ’80s, when stars and their flacks realized that their images were being used on covers to sell magazines and they wanted something for it — if not money then at least control (“picture approval” was their first bid).
Economics change media.
Here, AM New York’s value is distribution — greater distribution than the paid papers precisely because it’s free. So that makes its front page more valuable to advertisers than it is to AM New York.
I’m not pulling a holier-than-thou newspaper attitude about this; not making an ethical judgment about this. I’m just noting how the economics affect the product.
The medium isn’t the message. The bottom line is the message.
So what does that mean for online? Where’s our real value? Is it distribution? (No.) Is it audience? (Maybe.) Or is it relationships. (Yes.) And how does that make the product?